I took the plunge and began writing my first novel. It’s definitely character-driven, as I have no idea what will happen before I put the words on paper. I’ve never been trained as a writer, and the scientist in me is questioning the process tooth-and-nail. I’ve just decided to write whatever comes to mind, and save the editing for later. It really hurts my head, but I can’t seem to put the words down fast enough. My inner critic keeps saying that I need a better way of knowing whether I’m on the right track.
As I’ve progressed, my mind has often drifted to your current project on Hild. I’m assuming that you’re doing a lot of research since it involves historical events/people.
Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I hope you’re feeling better!
First of all, woo hoo! for starting your novel. With writing as with just about everything else, it’s better to be doing than to procrastinate. A friend once told of an Armenian proverb that goes something like: get the load off your mind and onto your back. That is, don’t fret, do. I think it’s a useful approach. Failing that, follow the Nike ad: Just Do It.
As for training as a writer, if you read all the time, you’re training. You will have absorbed unconsciously how to lay out a story, how to structure an opening so that the reader wants to keep going, what character details to include or leave out. The books to learn from are all around you. Pick up your five favourite novels and, one by one, read them, read them again immediately, read a third time, boom boom boom. I guarantee you’ll start to see the bones. Pay attention. That’s it. That’s all the training you need. Once you’ve written your first draft, then it might profit you to learn how to see your work consciously, and how to edit it, but for now, just write.
Do I research? Yes. Half the time I don’t know that that’s what I’m doing. I’ll find myself being interested in something close to hand–when Kelley worked at an environmental engineering company, she brought home magazines such as Garbage and Pollution Engineering and a catalogue (they called it a pigalog) of industrial things like emergency eye baths, drench showers, and neoprene protective gear. I inhaled them all. It got me thinking. I saw a faint outline of Slow River appearing from the mist. Then I began research in earnest.
This happened with Hild, too. I was interested for years in history, then in a particular era, then in a particular woman and her contemporaries. Then I glimpsed the novel waiting. Then I cranked up the research. Then I started writing. When I begin a novel, though, I stop researching in orderly fashion. It’s too confusing to keep learning new things while working on a story. Every now and again I encounter a question that has to be answered before I can proceed (what’s the 7th C attitude to dogs?) but mainly I sail majestically into the unknown.
You ask if I’m an intuitive writer, or analytical. I’m both and neither. I’ve been writing for twenty-five years; I’m an expert. I’ve talked about this before. Expert decision-making, expert creation, expert surgery–any kind of expertise–is a black box. Conundrum in one end, solution out the other. In between is the flashing decision-making resulting from decades of practise, thousands of hours of painstaking craftsmanship. It happens faster than conscious thought.
Once the first draft is complete, I rewrite. I start to consciously highlight and polish certain themes or motifs, and submerge others. It’s at this stage that I sometimes do a complete architectural rearrangement. (For more on this, see the blog conversation I had with Timmi Duchamp for Ambling Along the Aqueduct, essentially an essay I call Process Porn Part 1.)
The last two Aud books were a bit of an anomaly for me. Normally my first draft is very, very close to the final draft. This was true for Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, and all my essays and short stories. For some reason Stay and Always were different. Those books were a huge struggle. Years and years of angst. Lots of joy too, of course, but the process was uncomfortably conscious. I worried all the time about whether it would be good enough.
Why was I suddenly thinking this way? I’m not sure. Possibly because for the first time I was the family breadwinner; I was getting paid six figures and writing was suddenly Serious Business. Or maybe the fact that I was writing for Nan A. Talese turned my head. I don’t know. But it wasn’t the pure joy I was accustomed to. I censored myself, controlled myself, behaved until I thought I was going to go mad. It was a bit like having sex with all my clothes on and without making a sound.
If you’re asking for my advice, it’s this: screw your inner critic. Shut it in a cupboard and throw away the key. Ride the wave. Time enough to worry when you start getting sucked into the rip. (Trust me, you’ll know. For me, my stomach literally clenches. Whatever signal your subconscious sends, believe me, you’ll won’t be able to miss it.) For many writers, the hardest lesson is gagging the nagging parrot that sits on your shoulder and cackles, “What a load of crap! What a load of crap!” At least so people tell me. Until Stay I didn’t know what all those other writers were talking about. Now I do.
So for Hild I thought, fuck it. I’m just letting it purl out. It’s a joy. Even better, I suspect that what’s coming out now is it, bar a little tidying, what’s going to end up on the shelves. And I tell you, it feels great. So enjoy this part. Treasure it. Keep going. Good luck.